CHAMPAIGN — For teens who need hope and help setting solid goals in life, Sheldon Turner Sr. is there.
“I always tell them, ‘Focus, focus, focus,’” Turner said. “They have so many obstacles, so many things pulling them in all directions, and to have someone to help them see the big picture is great.”
Turner, the career services placement liaison for Champaign schools, will be honored by NAACP Champaign County with one of two “Yes, We Can!” education awards at the organization’s annual Freedom Fund banquet on Friday. Turner leads two programs the school district offers in cooperation with the city of Champaign and other community organizations.
One is Operation Hope, an 11-year-old program that encourages high school students to embrace positive activities and relationships and graduate with a post-secondary plan.
The other is a newer program called Goal Getters, aimed at helping high school students who are facing more than their share of life challenges.
A 43-year-old father of two sons, Turner remembers what it was like to be facing some challenges himself when he was younger.
Born and raised in East St. Louis in a family of seven kids, Turner came to Champaign to live with one of his brothers after high school to help him stay out of trouble, he said.
“It was a pretty good, safe place to be,” he recalled.
He began taking classes at Parkland College, but wasn’t entirely clear what he’d like to do for a living.
He tried several jobs, among them restaurant work and following in his dad’s footsteps with factory work.
For a time, Turner worked at the Kraft plant in Champaign. But he also had memories of doing something else while he was still in high school that he really enjoyed and found rewarding — coaching flag football for kids.
“I remember how it felt to be working with those kids,” he said.
Turner took a pay cut and went to work as a hall monitor at Jefferson Middle School, and enjoyed the job, he said.
From there, he went to work for the school district dealing with kids who were truant.
“We wanted to see what was causing them to not like school,” he recalled. “We found a lot of it was they really didn’t see the bigger picture.”
Operation Hope focuses on four “E” words — education, experience, engagement and exposure, Turner said.
That’s exposure as in chances to visit colleges and explore careers, experience in community service and engagement in activities that are positive.
“Those things are what bring hope,” Turner said.
'I know my identity'
Goal Getters, which offers leadership and development training, started last year targeting young black males. In this program, teens learn about conflict resolution, financial literacy, how to deal with police and the importance of not being part of a gang and not using a gun, Turner said.
Members of Goal Getters say a pledge at each meeting, and Turner said he asks members he runs into to recite it for him to make sure they know it.
The pledge is: “I am the hope of the future; I am educated; I know my identity; I am a leader, not a follower; I am responsible and I will honor those who have paved the way to my success,” Turner said.
He sees a need for Goal Getters and Operation Hope in other communities, and it’s a goal of his to help make that happen.
“All those things that I struggled with when I was trying to figure out what I was trying to do in life went into these two programs,” Turner said.
Been there, done that
Champaign County NAACP President Minnie Pearson said she’s attended church with Turner, knows both his children and has seen him do wonderful work in the community.
“He has touched the lives of some pretty decent young men and they have gone on to be students at Parkland,” she said.
Turner has also been showing young men that he can both “talk the talk and walk the walk,” Pearson said.
“He’s not asking them to do anything that he hasn’t done himself,” she said.